By Michael Caton  |  Posted 2005-08-29 Print this article Print

The latest update to Salesforce.com offers significantly improved customization capabilities and a host of minor improvements for users of Salesforce.com Inc.s namesake service.

The Summer 05 release, which became available last month, adds more options for companies that want to broaden the reach of Salesforce beyond managing sales and customer support by providing more tools for building custom applications. In addition, the upgrade has made it easier for companies to forecast sales and manage data. In eWEEK Labs tests, we found these improvements help Salesforce maintain the edge in flexibility and ease of use that makes it one of the best choices for companies looking for an application to manage sales and support.

This update also continues a trend of improvements that make Salesforce more than a hosted application. The service is now much more of an application hosting platform that gives companies the ability to create custom applications and workflows that can, but dont necessarily have to, be part of the sales and support process.

Click here to read Michael Catons analysis of Salesforce.com integration options. Priced starting at $65 per user per month for the Professional Edition and $125 per user per month for the Enterprise Edition, the product is still an expensive option over the long term when compared with licensed, on-premise applications. However, Salesforces application and data management costs should be much lower than those of the other applications. For groups of five users, the Team Edition costs $995 per year.

The service has two main- stay applications: Salesforce, for sales management, and Supportforce, for customer support. Also included are Customforce, a tool for customizing both applications, and Multiforce, which can enable creation of custom applications that reside within Salesforce and Supportforce.

As if this werent enough to indicate branding run amok, there is yet another "force" component, Sforce. Sforce encompasses the tools used for managing data exchange between Salesforce and other enterprise applications.

Customforce is where the meat of tweaking and building happens for companies that want to go beyond the basic Salesforce applications. In this update, Customforce provides a number of welcome new features and improvements, the most significant of which is the ability to exploit Multiforce, the base operating environment.

Using Multiforce, we could create a custom application by packaging standard and customer application components such as forms by bundling them together through tabs as a preconfigured application that can be assigned to users based on role-based user profiles. For example, we built our own application by packaging some standard components, such as the tools under the Leads and Opportunities tabs, with customized forms included under a custom Labs Projects tab.

Multiforce gives companies a clever way to build customized applications and workflows without reconfiguring the underlying Salesforce components in total. It could require some retraining for experienced Salesforce users, however, because otherwise-common user interface navigation elements wont move over unless those elements core applications are part of the custom application.

The most welcome addition to Customforce in this release is its ability to add formulas to custom fields. This eases tasks such as creating automated discounts or totals for opportunities . The formula function worked well in tests, although it showed some limitations. For example, all data must reside under the same application tab, or the formula function cant reference it. The formula function can call text fields, but this capability is limited, so developers will need to be clever if they want to use formulas to push text that identifies invalid product pairings or up-sell opportunities.

Customforce puts powerful tools in the hands of administrators who want to customize the user experience, but its wizard-based tools are tedious to use, particularly when adding a number of similar fields to an application. For the service to truly become a hosting platform for data-driven applications, the company will have to build tools that give administrators the ability to more quickly configure fields and forms. Salesforce.com is beta testing such a tool, called the AJAX Toolkit, which allows developers to write applications directly in JavaScript and HTML.

For end users, the Summer 05 release includes a few handy additions that make Salesforce easier to navigate and improve the way users can manage data. We liked the new calendar shortcut that appears in the left search navigation area, as well as the ability to edit a record directly from the search results view.

We also liked that we could more easily manage data within the application through some new tools designed to globally search for and remove duplicates as well as manage addresses. For example, we were able to look for and globally replace country information, replacing "US of A" with "United States" through this new address wizard.

In addition, Salesforce has a new data migration application, Salesforce Dataloader, for migrating comma-delimited-value data into the application .

Within Supportforce, the service now makes it easier to create and manage rules for generating support cases from e-mail. The feature requires a company to create e-mail aliases, such as tiered support addresses, as well as install a routing agent behind the firewall to help manage message routing. Once an e-mail message is received, it is automatically routed to Supportforce and converted to a case.

Next page: Evaluation Shortlist: Related Products.


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